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Making Disneynature’s ‘Monkey Kingdom’: Shooting in the Jungles of Sri Lanka with Sony F65 Cameras

'Monkey Kingdom' was filmed over the course of three years, during which time the director says they shot more than 1,000 camera days and amassed nearly a petabyte of data.

Disneynature’s latest documentary feature film Monkey Kingdom engaged a production team including director Mark Linfield, co-director Alastair Fothergill, and co-directors of photography Martyn Colbeck and Gavin Thurston for nearly three years in the steamy jungles of South Asia in hopes of following a family of toque macaques.

Linfield—perhaps best known for his work on the BBC Natural History Unit television project Planet Earth (2006), the associated theatrical film Earth (2007) and the Frozen Planet series (2011)—had shot a project in Sri Lanka with director of photography Gavin Thurston nearly two decades ago, so they were somewhat familiar with the area and its native fauna. That project “started a lifelong fascination with primates,” says Linfield, who also directed Disneynature’s Chimpanzees (2012). Disneynature is the independent film unit of Walt Disney Studios.

Maya and her son Kip. Photo by Jeff Wilson.

Monkey Kingdom reunited Linfield with Dr. Wolfgang Dittus, Ph.D., whose nearly 50-year study of the macaques of Sri Lanka was a huge asset to the production. His knowledge allowed filmmakers to understand the macaques’ social structure, day-to-day lives and individual personality traits. “Our many decades of past research invested in these toque macaques paid dividends for the production,” says Dittus. “Not only did we know these monkeys intimately, but the monkeys were perfectly at ease and behaved normally when the film crew pointed a camera at them.”

Linfield notes, “We worked with scientists and spent months in the field familiarizing ourselves with the habits of these fascinating creatures. I immediately knew I wanted Martyn and Gavin as principal cinematographers. Both have huge experience working with primates, which gives them an uncanny ability to predict behavior.”

Gavin Thurston, director of photography, films monkeys in the ruins. Photo by Mark Linfield.

Input from Dittus and his research team helped the director narrow the focus of the story and pay cinematic attention to individuals and behaviors likely to pay off in the narrative structure of the film. “Part of the director’s role is to decide what to focus on. It’s helping to recognize what the story is that’s unfolding before you and working out the best way to capture it, taking into account the various limitations we place on ourselves to let nature tell the story.”

Linfield, assistant director Jeff Wilson and the cinematographers were able to focus their efforts over three years of production on shooting footage supporting the film’s theme. “We knew our story would follow a low-ranking female as she tried to make the most of a bad start in life. Of course, we didn’t know exactly what would happen to Maya during the course of production. That’s serendipity,” Linfield says. “But we knew on a daily basis we would primarily be focusing on her and the things that were impacting her life and her struggle.”

The film, narrated by Tina Fey, follows the story of Maya and her son Kip in the complex social hierarchy of a band of toque macaques in the Polonnaruwa area of Sri Lanka, which features spectacular ruins of an ancient civilization, a modern society and a wealth of wildlife.

Director Mark Linfield. Photo by Jeff Wilson.

Monkey Kingdom was filmed over the course of three years, during which time the director says they shot more than 1,000 camera days and amassed nearly a petabyte of data. Eight months of editing and color grading followed.

The primary camera on Monkey Kingdom was Sony’s F65, a 4K camera selected for its image quality, dynamic range and resolution. The camera was customized a bit to reduce its weight—though the camera still weighed 63 pounds with lens and tripod—and the team had Sony change the default strength of the built-in ND filters. The team also used two Sony F55s—for an underwater sequence and a situation that required getting the camera into small holes in the macaques’ home rock.

“As usual with Disney, we could choose our own equipment based on the needs of the project, and shooting with a 35mm sensor would have significant advantages for this type of production,” says Linfield. “We wanted to isolate our monkey subjects from the cluttered background, which is easier to do with a larger sensor. We also wanted the other advances that come with single large CMOS sensors—such as high sensitivity, low noise, wide dynamic range, higher frame rates and more resolution.”

Sony’s F65 was introduced into the marketplace shortly before the Monkey Kingdom shoot began, just as several other Super 35mm digital cinema cameras were becoming popular with wildlife filmmakers. Linfield’s crew found the other options lacking. “Either you needed to use a larger-than-Super 35 area of the sensor to get good image quality—which would restrict our lensing too much—or they didn’t have built-in ND [neutral density] filters, which are really helpful for our genre,” Linfield says. “We were also keen to shoot raw [uncompressed] in-camera, and the F65 was designed with this in mind. One thing we found very hard to argue with in our tests was the image quality.”

Photo by Martyn Colbeck.

Linfield says others may have assumed his crew chose the F65 because of the quality of its 4K imagery, but that wasn’t the case. “When we started this project three years ago, we suspected that 4K would be more established in the cinema, so we wanted to maintain the option of a 4K release. But the camera had a significant edge over its rivals for a 2K delivery. Not only did it have the right combination of operational features, but in our tests you could clearly see the advantages of oversampling in the 2K image. Pictures had such cleanly defined high-frequency detail, which stayed high in contrast until the display ran out of pixels. This was a look we wanted,” Linfield says.

“In addition, shooting 4K for 2K gives you the ability to reframe shots,” he adds. “The fact that the F65 has an especially detailed 4K image, with close to 4K resolution in every color channel, and with full 4K on the green channel, means you can push in on the image.”

Thurston also appreciated the F65’s ability to render greens, the primary color of the jungle. “I love the F65. The color depth is amazing. To have 16-bit raw color is extraordinary, but having two green channels means you get the beautiful richness of greens,” Thurston says. “The thing I’m proudest of is a lot of shots actually look very cinematic. It’s quite nice to think two or three people can hike out with an F65 kit with some grip equipment and actually produce theater-quality images.”

Cameraman Warwick Sloss films the annual termite emergence. Photo by Jeff Wilson.

Other on-site tools that Thurston found useful were the camera’s Wi-Fi connectivity—which allowed assistant camera Robbie Garbutt to control camera functions from a distance, including frame rate and ND, via the F65 iPad app—and the variable frame rate capability. “Having the versatility to go to 120 frames on the F65 was great, particularly for the stuff around water with the monkeys mucking around and making these heroic leaps from 30 feet up in the trees into the water,” Thurston says. “We used the mechanical shutter for up to 60 frames, and we were using a 180-degree shutter to mimic the look we’re used to seeing with film cameras,” Thurston says.

Thurston came away from the shoot thinking of his primate friends as extended family. “If they look after each other in a close-knit society, they can live quite a long time,” he says. “You’ll see that they’re stronger as a team than they would be as individuals.”